Al Capone, Hell Hole Swamp, & South Carolina Corn Whiskey: A Look at High Wire Distilling (Pt. One)

Just off the Cooper River at the base of the Arthur Ravanel bridge in historic Charleston, SC, you will find a boutique distillery offering one of the most unique whiskies in the world. High Wire Distillery, with the partnership of local farmers and celebrity chefs, have found a way to combine their love and passion for heirloom varieties & whiskey. From the bustle of Charleston to a place many of you reading have never heard of, the story of High Wire does not begin in the modern era. It begins in places like Hell Hole Swamp, an area rich with national fame for whiskey production.

If you’re already looking for it on a map, good luck. Start with Francis Marion National Forest; go north a bit, east a bit, west a bit, and south a bit. Think of dense swampland scattered amongst thick pines and cypress trees for as far as you can walk in either direction. It was here that Francis Marion got his nickname “Swamp Fox” and the name Hell Hole is found on maps throughout the revolutionary time period.

During prohibition, moonshiners from this area sent boxcars full of corn whiskey to Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Savannah, and most definitely to Columbia & Charleston. It’s rumored that Al Capone didn’t pay for one of his shipments, so the boxcars full of whiskey quit coming to Chicago when ordered. The story goes that when he sent a team of his guys to ruffle some feathers in Hell Hole Swamp, they were led into, and l then eft in the swamp with their cars taken for the unpaid whiskey; Business resumed as normal after that affair. In Kentucky during the 1920’s, only a few distilleries were legally allowed to produce whiskey, and for medicinal purposes only. This gave South Carolina mooshiners the illegal opportunity to produce some of the best corn whiskey in the world…and they did. That’s right. Right here in the Palmetto State some of the best whiskey was and is still made.

You might be wondering how does High Wire Distillery fit in to this story? They are a company who prefers single grain whiskey from seed to bottle, just like the days of old. They aren’t buying dent corn in mass production, but rather helping resurrect a long lost (and almost extinct) Heirloom red corn called Jimmy Red. Jimmy Red was the grain of a legendary Moonshiner on James Island south of Charleston, and no doubt this moonshiner’s corn whiskey was every bit as good as the famed Hell Hole Swamp juice.

Husband and wife co-owners Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall were entrusted with 2.5 acres worth of Jimmy Red seed to sow back in 2014. After harvesting enough Jimmy Red for 2 batches of Bourbon, out came one of the most unique and delicious whiskies they had ever tasted. I would agree wholeheartedly as I was able to taste one of those first batches myself. If you are a fan of craft whiskey, the newest batch of Jimmy Red tastes infinitely better than those first batches; that is not a knock on them at all, but rather a testament to their skilled growth. I noticed immediately that they must be blending some of their first couple of batches that now carried a higher age statement on the barrel.

If you have ever been to Husk, a James Beard award winning farm to table restaurant in Charleston, you may have been served Jimmy Red corn by the famous chef Sean Brock. You might have even called it Garnet Corn, and to that I salute you. It’s rich, sweet flavor is the gold star standard for red corn, but its nutty, oily components in a mash make it incredibly ripe for extraordinary whiskey.

G.C. and I have been invited to visit the distillery in mid-July to see the entire process from holding Jimmy Red grain to tasting whiskey from the barrel. I couldn’t be more excited as a South Carolina native to see the incredible labor of love that High Wire Distillery has put forth over the last 9 years. Rumor has it that some incredible new craft releases are coming up for their 10th anniversary this fall. Will they finally have a whiskey with an age statement? A double barrel aged offering? Their first Bottled-In-Bond bourbon?

Next week we find out more…

For more information on High Wire Distilling please check their website out here:

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